Last semester, I intentionally addicted myself to coffee.
Fed up with my daily schedule of eating lunch and then slipping into an unproductive coma, I started having a cup of coffee every day around 3 p.m. It worked, and I've reclaimed about two and a half hours of every day. But now I'm both enabler and victim of a blossoming caffeine addiction — both Pavlov and his dog.
Caffeine is one of the many addictions that seem to develop in college, mostly because students tend to think Red Bull and a good night's sleep are interchangeable. But there is a big difference between my drowsy compulsion to drink a cup of coffee and the withdrawals of a heroin addict.
Take Flappy Bird for instance, or the newest game stealing millions of smartphone users' hours — 2048. These games are described as "addictive" because you "can't stop playing them." They are so fun, or so compelling, we find ourselves playing these games instead of sleeping, doing homework or paying attention to the world around us.
That said, when Flappy Bird was suddenly pulled from the App store, people weren't going into shock and having health problems due to withdrawals. They weren't spending all day with a real gnawing feeling keeping them from being a normal person. We're trapped by how fun life is with Flappy Bird, not by how awful life is without it.
According to the National Coalition for the Homeless, 38 percent of homeless people are addicted to alcohol, and 26 percent abuse other substances. Two-thirds of homeless people report that drugs or alcohol were a major reason for them becoming homeless. When we refuse to give them money because they might feed their addiction, are we truly recognizing what that addiction is doing to them, or are we assuming they can just quit when they want to?
Sometimes the way we use words takes away from their meaning. The classic example is when we get distracted and blame it on our "ADD." As a result, there's a chronic over-diagnosis of ADD among absentminded kids, and those who really struggle with a chemical deficiency are written off as complainers or lazy.
My habit of getting caffeine in the afternoon to pep myself up is not an addiction (though some are addicted to caffeine). It's pretty hard for me to avoid getting a cup of coffee or a late night snack out of habit. How much harder would that be if I quite literally couldn't get them out of my mind?
To put it concisely, the American Society for Addiction Medicine calls addiction "a primary, chronic disease of brain reward, motivation, memory and related circuitry... characterized by inability to consistently abstain, impairment in behavioral control, craving," and damage to relationships and oneself.
So habits like brushing your teeth and a daily run are not addictions, nor are compulsions like playing one more round of 2048 or watching another episode of "The Walking Dead."
That's not to say habits aren't important. A talk with one of my professors about this issue pointed out that habits and addictions are different in a key way — with an addiction, you feel the need to do something, much like hunger or thirst. With habits, you don't even think about it — like how you tie your shoes or putting your keys in your car ignition.
This makes habits terribly useful. Aristotle famously said, "We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit." This was the reasoning behind my choice to drink afternoon coffee — I wanted to be productive in the afternoon. Now, I don't even think about it and I get my work done.
We can develop good habits of not procrastinating or being healthy to the point where we do it naturally. This is one of the main ways that we get wiser as we get older, developing better habits and getting rid of our bad ones — like playing hours of Flappy Bird.
Still, we should keep in mind the seriousness of addiction, and just how different it is from habit.
Evan Ford is a junior in philosophy. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.